Saturday, April 12, 2014

His mercy endures for ever

Palm Sunday 2014
Psalm 118    Philippians 2:5-11 Matthew 21: 1-11    Matthew 27:1-54
The Coming of the King
There are basically three ways in which the Psalms can be read and understood.

1. The original meaning and application of the author as he expressed personal pain, or praise, or made petition to God for help.

2. The understanding and application for the individual reader as an expression of personal pain, or praise, or as an aid to personal petition to God for help.

3. The understanding and application for a group of readers, whether a nation, or a congregation, or a family – again for the same purposes, but, in this case the Psalms serve as a collective expression of pain, or praise, or a collective petition to God for help.

As such, the Psalms teach us about ourselves, about suffering, and about God and how he views our suffering and how he deals with it. The Psalms were never meant to be locked in their particular historical setting and circumstances, but rather they were written with a view to timeless relevance. It is little wonder then, that believers down through the ages have often turned to the Psalms for comfort and strength in time of need.

Traditionally, at least since the time of the Babylonian Exile or shortly thereafter, Psalms 113-118 are chanted at the Passover Meal, the first two before the meal and the last four afterwards. This is possibly what the Gospel authors were referring to when they stated that Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn prior to their going to the Mount of Olives. (It really is quite something to think that these might have been the last Psalms Jesus sang before his arrest, trial and execution.) These Psalms are known as the “Egyptian Hallel” (or Praise) Psalms as their theme serves to remind the worshipers of the Exodus from Egypt even though only the second (Psalm 114) actually speaks directly to the historical event. However, they are interconnected as Psalm 113 addresses the theme of oppression, 115 the theme of praise for undeserved mercy, protection, and blessing, 116 the theme of thanksgiving for deliverance, 117 the theme of universal praise, and finally, our Psalm for today, 118 the theme of triumphal procession. 

Linking these themes together makes them an appropriate series of Psalms addressing the greatest theme in Scripture, namely that of the deliverance of God’s people for the purpose of worldwide re-creation, reconciliation, and restoration…tracing God’s progressive plan of redemption from the Fall of the 1st Adam in the Garden of Eden to the final consummation of all things through the victorious reign of the 2nd Adam, namely Jesus, the Christ.

This plan can be seen in paradigmatic or parabolic or picture form in the historical events of the Exodus from Egypt and the return of the Exiles from Babylon. And the purpose of quoting these Psalms at Passover was to show that as surely as God had delivered Israel from captivity in the past through the figures of Moses, Joshua, David, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Zerubbabel, so He would deliver Israel in the future through the figure of the Messiah. Thus it is not surprising that Psalm 118 was quoted during Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem on, what we now call, Palm Sunday. But little did the crowd know how prophetic their words would prove to be… that something far greater than the physical Exodus or the physical Restoration after the Exile would indeed take place within a few days time.

As I said, I do not believe that any of the Psalms were ever meant to be locked in their particular historical setting and circumstance, but rather they were written with a view to timeless relevance, otherwise why were they set to tunes for liturgical use?. Thus, although the individual Psalms themselves really only have one meaning, each and every one of them was written for personal and corporate use by generations to come, and therefore they all have multiple applications. In this case, Psalm 118 refers to anyone forced to face the reality of continuing and prolonged oppression – bringing to mind the past victories of God on behalf of his people serves to bolster faith and encourage trust in him regardless of the historical situation. 

For this reason, the Early Church quite correctly believed that this Psalm referred to Jesus. In both of the Gospel lessons for today, we see him, not only triumphantly processing into Jerusalem with the sound of rejoicing…not only being hailed as the King who had come to restore the kingdom of David…but we also see him being surrounded and violently dealt with by “all nations”, both Israel and the Gentiles. So, we who live on the other side of Calvary understand the words, “I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord”, to refer to our Lord’s death and resurrection. Remember, Jesus referred to himself as the stone which the builders had rejected, a direct quotation from this Psalm.

Thus by recording the words of the crowds chanting specifically from Psalm 118, the author of the Gospel attempted to draw our attention to the fact that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was the greater fulfillment of what the Exodus and the return from Exile merely pictured. As God was with his people in the Exodus…as God was with his people in the restoration after the Exile…so God was with his people in the cross, reconciling the world to himself through the death of his only Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus,  the Messiah.

You see, Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem was the beginning of the end of the greatest slavery of all time – that of our slavery to sin – it was the beginning of the end of the greatest exile of all time – that of our exile from Paradise and from the very source of life, namely God himself. For this reason, the Church traditionally saw fit to use this Psalm, not only in her Palm Sunday celebrations, but also in her Easter Sunday celebrations, as Easter marked the day on which God saved us and sent us prosperity in its true sense. Easter marked the day on which the sacrifice that had been bound with cords to the horns of the altar was shown to have been accepted by God as atonement for the sins of the whole world.

But the Early Church also saw every Sunday (some might even say every day) as a celebration of the resurrection – the day on which God still actively assists believers  in their struggle to live as his delivered people – a day on which he should be rightly praised for his enduring mercy – a day on which he should be thanked for his unmerited pardon and salvation. And so the Ancient Church celebrated the Eucharist…the Great Feast of Thanksgiving…each Lord’s Day (again, some might say every day) as a reminder that God is for us and that he has opened the gates of righteousness for us to enter in and to praise his name for ever.

And so, dearest beloved brethren, each time you approach the Lord’s Table, remember that his mercy does indeed endure forever – that same mercy which he demonstrated to his people in the Exodus – that same mercy which he showed toward his people in the return from Exile – that same mercy is still present today to strengthen and uphold us as we go into his world to proclaim that the long expected King – the Messiah – the Holy One of Israel himself, Jesus the Christ, has indeed come, and that he reigns – even now – as the victorious Lord over all his creation.

© Johann W. Vanderbijl III    2014

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